Unleashing workforce potential
During COVID-19, leaders called upon workers to expand their roles to whatever needed to be done—and workers rose to the challenge, identifying critical needs and deploying their capabilities against them from the bottom up.
The growing prevalence of worker agency and choice during the pandemic showed that, when given the chance to align their interests and passions with organizational needs, workers can fulfill their potential in ways that leaders may never have known they could, positioning the organization to thrive in the long term.
The most important way that organizations can unleash workers’ potential is to empower them with agency and choice over what they do. We’ve lived in a world where we assumed organizations knew best what skills workers needed to bring to the table. But the pandemic taught us that potential comes to fuller fruition when workers are allowed to take more initiative. Workforce potential is not about what workers were recruited to do, or what they are certified to do, or even what organizations or leaders want them to do next. It’s about giving workers more freedom to choose how they can best help tackle critical business problems as organizations and ecosystems evolve.
One way to give workers more agency and choice in what they do is through “opportunity—or talent—marketplaces.” These marketplaces are platforms that make visible and communicate to workers defined opportunities for professional development, training, mentorship, project participation, networking, promotion, diversity, and inclusion. They’re designed to provide workers with choice by helping them match their interests, passions, and capabilities against current and future business and project demands. Such “passion projects” give workers new development experiences and opportunities to learn in the flow of work, further enhancing the skills they bring to the organization.
Opportunity marketplaces benefit organizations in several ways. By giving workers the chance to volunteer for work they prefer and value, they bring to light valuable information about workers’ interests, passions, and capabilities that may otherwise remain hidden. This, in turn, allows the organization to more quickly identify and redeploy workers against critical business priorities. At the same time, workers who are able to do what matters to them become more motivated and more engaged.
Capturing the insights that worker choice can help uncover requires a shift in frame from looking for gaps to sensing for evolving patterns and possibilities. To that end, a variety of vendors are employing new approaches to skills graphs and skills engines that break previous, limited understandings of skills adjacencies. Vendors from across a converging set of workforce technology domains, such as Gloat, Degreed, Eightfold, Faethm, Ibbaka, ProFinda, and Pymetrics, are focused less on a top-down inventorying of skills and more on helping organizations reimagine the relationships between skills, positions, teams, and industries to seize opportunities presented by the future of work and help workers reach their potential.
Payments technology company Mastercard exemplifies how a deeper understanding of worker potential can help inform workforce planning and development efforts. Following a period of rapid and extensive growth, Mastercard business and HR leaders realized that the organization needed a clear understanding of its workforce’s skills and capabilities, especially in light of technology-driven change. To clarify how roles and skills were changing as technology evolves, the organization invested in a forward-looking analytics platform, Faethm, that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to model emerging technologies’ impact on any economy, industry, organization, or job. During the pandemic, this platform has been key in guiding some decisions on work flexibility ranges. In the future, the organization plans to use the insights from this tool to guide day-to-day learning investments and, ultimately, support worker career progression. This analytics-driven approach has moved Mastercard beyond the traditional approach of identifying employee profiles from the top down and matching them with training needs. Instead, the technology infers employee profiles from the bottom up by analyzing multiple large-scale data sets from many systems and sources (such as performance management, job descriptions, learning management systems, and career conversations). This allows Mastercard to more accurately understand its workers’ skills to identify organization-wide strengths and development areas.
The deeper understanding of workers resulting from worker choice can help organizations break free of the constraints of traditional workforce planning models. Historically, workforce planning has relied on competency frameworks, static job descriptions, and linear career paths to define and organize work and the workforce. Efforts to prepare for the future have largely taken the form of a supply chain–inspired focus on pipelines for critical roles, with conversations about hot skills, skills gaps, and skills adjacencies dominating conversations around talent. But those conversations often lose sight of the latent potential within the workforce—and the value they can create when their potential is understood and harnessed. For instance, during the pandemic, Scandinavian Airlines recognized that its cabin staff members could be well suited for roles in health care due to their basic medical training and experience dealing with people in difficult situations. The organization created a program to rapidly retrain laid-off cabin staff as assistant nurses to meet rising health care staff needs during COVID-19. To date, this program has helped place more than 300 cabin attendants and people with equivalent experience from other sectors in Sweden’s health care system, fulfilling an important social need.
Giving workers a voice in what they do also helps organizations act more dynamically and in real-time. Top-down approaches based on identifying business needs and then finding or developing the skills to put against them will always be slower than approaches that allow workers to self-select based on their interests and abilities. The challenge here is to put guardrails in place that channel workers’ interests and abilities toward the good of the organization, allowing choice, not for its own sake but because what is chosen helps the organization grow and thrive. Organizations that figure this out can benefit from the increased agility and resilience to change that are critical to navigating constant disruption.
The success of work transformation depends on an organization’s ability to unlock human potential to define and deliver new outcomes. Organizations that want to unlock human potential should consider actions in the following areas.
Shift the supply and demand equation
- Build talent marketplaces that actively address both sides of the workforce supply and demand equation. Marketplaces can expose business and project needs to workers and can expose workforce skills and capabilities to the organization.
- Design roles to assume ongoing reinvention and include excess capacity earmarked for it. Cultivate worker passions to solve unseen and future problems. Reward workers who identify critical gaps and reinvent themselves to fill them. New vendors such as Learn In can help provide time, not just money, allowing workers to engage in lifelong learning while limiting the typical opportunity costs.
Center workforce planning on potential
- Shift workforce planning approaches away from a reliance on top-down mandates, providing more agency to workers themselves. Empower workers to reimagine what, how, and where work gets done.
- Consider AI-enabled technologies that can help make sense of unstructured data from inside and outside the organization and surface latent patterns such as the inferred presence of one skill based on the presence of others. It’s important to ensure that such new AI tools are integrated into the strategy and that the implications of their deployment are understood and accepted by all stakeholders. They will struggle to get traction if their value is not acknowledged and demonstrated.
Drive toward real-time, dynamic action
- Gather and act on workforce data that provides a real-time view of workers’ skills across the entire talent ecosystem. Ask forward-looking questions about workers’ desired future directions rather than tracking prescriptive metrics such as hours spent in training or credentials earned, and use the answers to encourage workers to make learning choices that benefit both themselves and the organization.
- Remember that teams are becoming the driving unit of organizational performance. Teams will be able to learn and adapt faster than individual workers alone, since teams of motivated individuals will challenge each other to come up with better, more creative ideas.
The challenge for organizations now is to develop strategies and programs for workforce development and deployment as dynamic and adaptable as the business problems we are trying to solve.